Trout are fickle this time of year, but sheepshead sure aren’t.
Zack set the hook and erupted with a mighty “WHOOOAH!” His rod bashed the console as it dipped to the water.“Now HERE’S a FISH!” he whooped while moving his hand up the handle for a better grip.
“ABOUT TIME!” I snarled from the bow. “KNEW we shouldn’t have come HERE!”
“Be NICE!” Tricia snapped from behind me. I jerked my head around to see her fire-red fingernail pointing at my nose from a foot away. She’d just twisted open another wine cooler and clutched the bottle-cap in the rest of her freshly manicured fingers.
She fixed me with her cold dagger eyes — cold, but a gorgeous green and beautifully made up this morning. A lock of her honey blond hair dangled across one eye. Her gold hoop earrings dangled against her black turtleneck. Her pouting lips were frosted — but not overly so. Nothing tacky about this woman.
Finally her face softened and she smiled — a wicked little smile followed by a wink.
“Lighten up, Hon,” she purred.
Now it hit me. We’d just met her at Doc’s Bourbon Street bungalow at his Bacchus bash, where I kept trying to place her face, body and demeanor. But the festivities were too distracting for reasoned analysis. Tricia, Doc’s latest girlfriend, had been the hit of the balcony scene. She even wore a purple thong beneath her hip huggers for the occasion. Her goodies astern were flashed with the same abandon as those near the bow.
The Sugar Bowl crowds were sedate compared to those under Doc’s balcony that unforgettable night. Now I finally remembered who she reminded me of — Sharon Stone. This woman was gonna be trouble.
Indeed it was “about time.” We’d been fishing for two hours with four trout to show for it. One of those late-winter trips to the “famed” Oak River area.
Never fails. I’d warned about this notoriously fickle fishing area. But NOOOOOOOO. Pelayo’s brother-in-law Zack was in for Mardi Gras from Atlanta, eager to sample the fabulous fishing we’d been yakking and boasting about at Doc’s party.
What a stupid place to bring him. And say by some odd chance you DO find the specks out here? What’s to reeling in a cold-stunned 13-inch trout? A strand of millfoil fights harder.
And for the privilege you wrangle with crowds of boats. It’s a joke. You can HAVE IT!
But NOOOOOOOOOO. Nobody listened to me! So here we are
Guess I shouldn’t complain. Doc Fontaine offered to host the trip. His boat, his Delacroix camp, his Suburban — so he picked the spot. Tricia was also along for the fun.
Zack cranked his reel like a maniac. Earlier he’d told us that back home he’d never really been a “big-time” fisherman, though he always enjoyed the sport. Now we saw what he meant. He held the spinning reel upside down, cranking backwards. Hey, to each his own.
His spool still sang the sweet music — but nothing was happening.
“Better tighten that drag, Zack!” Pelayo screeched from his perch on the bow.
So Zack started fumbling with the spool while jabbing the rod butt into his ample stomach and grimacing crazily. He was something to see.
It finally hit me, who reminded me of — Bluto in Animal House. He was a ringer. Any minute he might yell, “FOOD FIGHT!”
“Haul up the anchor, Pelayo, will ya,” Doc said as he lifted Tricia from his lap and started moving toward the console. While ducking under Zack’s bucking rod, he gave Tricia a little pat on the fanny that caused her to “ooooh!” and look around with that wicked smile of hers again.
Then she leaned over and whispered something in his ear. Whatever it was, Doc laughed, maneuvered behind the console and grabbed the wheel.
Pelayo looked over at me, like saying, “I KNEW it!”
He nodded disgustedly and started tugging on the anchor. Zack felt the boat move and looked around confused. “Hey?!…What the?…”
Just then his fish hit the surface, and I reached down with the net.
I heaved aboard his catch, and Zack went NUTS!
“What a FISH!” he howled while lunging for it with both hands. “YEEE-YAH!” he yelled while hefting his black-striped prize.
“And HEY!…ain’t this one a-dem?…dem?…Sheepshead? Yeah, looks like one! Caught a couple with a charter off Carolina coupla years back. The guide went nuts. He took all kinda pictures with ‘em. And he was right. Man, dey was some GREAT eating!”
Just as Pelayo clanged the anchor into the boat, Doc hit the switch, and the outboard rumbled to life. Zack looked around wide-eyed, mouth open.
“Where!? Ain’t y’all gonna fish?? What?….what? Where we ‘GOIN?!”
“Gonna go look for some fish,” Doc said as he gunned it.
Zack arched his eyebrows, opened his arms in a “what gives?” pose, and finally sat down on the ice chest, bewildered.
“You just caught a TRASH fish, Zack” I said with heavy sarcasm, while making sure to look over at Doc. “Your fish BOTH fights ferociously and has white, luscious, parasite-free meat.”
I looked over at Doc disgustedly, gritting and baring my teeth.
“Can’t have THAT, can WE! Here we run the risk of LOADING the boat with them!” Doc ignored me. “So we’re gonna go look for fish that fight like a wet paper towel and are fulla little white worms!”
I sighed, looked skyward and plunked down next to Trish.
“Calm down, poor baby,” she pouted while patting me on the shoulder.”Calm down, now.”
As we came off the plane and the wind kicked in, Tricia wrapped her arms around her shoulders, made shivering motions and cuddled against me.
“Your coat big enough for both of us, Hum-BAYRR-to?” she asked while lifting my arm and pressing her head and shoulders into my torso. “Can we share?” she whispered while snuggling in.
“Ye gods!” I thought.
She always affected a sophisticated pronunciation of my name, even trying to roll the rrrrs.
The woman had me seriously rattled. Was Doc watching? Did he care? Probably not. He’s famous for this crap, always showing off his girlfriends to his long-married friends. Rubbing it in. Teasing us, always trying to get us in trouble. The wives know this — and actually LIKE it. Figures. They love to see us tortured.
I sat there holding my arms up like some kind of spastic scarecrow, badly flustered and confused — but let’s face it, other than the stars in Queer Eye For the Straight Guy, who wouldn’t be getting a little something from this?
Finally I lowered my arms—but very gingerly, applying little pressure. I felt like a junior high-schooler again, on a date to the show, maybe to see Love Story or some other sappy trash you were supposed to see on dates, rather than the stuff we all WANTED to see like Patton, The Wild Bunch or The Dirty Dozen.
Once seated, we’d e-v-e-r so c-a-s-u-a-l-l-y place our arms around our date’s upper seat — but always maintaining a discreet distance of two molecules from her actual body. Movie over, we’d spend the rest of the night trying to get circulation back into that arm.
Whatever, Tricia didn’t seem to like my timid style, and started snuggling again.
“Oooh, I’m STILL cold,” came her muffled cry from my sternum area. “Come on! Hum-BAAYRR-to. You want me to catch a cold?”
And she finally looked up through a hole in my unzipped parka and fixed me with those eyes again. The wine on her breath was starting to overpower even her heavenly perfume. She’d been into the coolers since 6 that morning. Now I saw that her eyes were getting red and glassy. She slowly closed them, sniffled slightly and rubbed her little ski-jump nose playfully against my shirt.
I was losing it. We roared around the big bend just past Jack Nevette to find three boats anchored. Doc saw them in time and rared back on the gas. The motion caused me to lurch forward and Tricia to slide further down my torso into the lap region.
“How ’bout a SANDWICH!” I jumped up and blurted. “Man, I’m HUNGRY!” I continued, while looking around. “Anyone else? Trish? Got some dynamite venison philly-beef po-boys here,” I said while opening the cooler and finally catching my breath.
“Sounds like a winna,” Pelayo said as I tossed him the sandwich.
“Get me another wine cooler please, Hum—BAAYR-to,” she said slowly while adjusting her hair into a ponytail.
“How ’bout some orange juice?” I offered while rummaging in the cooler. “Here, I bought a bunch…or some V-8 juice? Plenty of that too…here let me…..”
“Good idea,” she chirped “Mitch?” (Doc’s first name). “Bloody Mary time? Is it, Mitch? Did you bring them?”
“Of course, honey,” Doc said as we idled past the boats. He reached down into his little Igloo and hefted out a dripping gallon jug of the stuff. The guy thinks of everything.
“Pour me one, pleeeeeea-se, Mitch, my little Mitchy poo, pleeeeease.”
Tricia leaned back and looked over her shoulder, batting her eyelashes and making a little girl face.
“Hey!” Zack announced from the stern. “Think I’ll have me one a dem there Bloody Marys myself!”
“Same here,” Pelayo blurted. “After last night, that stuff oughta really hit the spot.”
Whoo-Boy, I thought. Here we go.
Ponton was another bust, both the bay and the bayou. Only the Bloody Marys kept me from strangling Doc. But the crowds were definitely out.
“It’s like Mardi Gras out here!” Pelayo snapped as we idled past no fewer than 10 boats casting into Oak River near the Twin pipeline.
“Yeah!” Trish suddenly yelled. “Mardi Gras! WHOOPEE!” and she shot to her feet, waved to the boats and gripped the bottom of her sweater.
“Anybody got any beads!” she lifted it slightly, only exposing her navel and the top of her purple thong. The boaters, all male, mostly our age, caught on INSTANTLY!!
“YOW-ZA!” one guy yelled. His buddies dropped their poles and started whooping and clapping maniacally.
“No beads, but got some beetles!” said his partner while rummaging in his tackle box. “Here!” And he hoisted a little bag of chartreuse tails.
The sweater went up a little higher as Tricia shimmied her hips and licked her lips.
“That’s all?” she pouted. The girl was a pro. Another guy held up a beer, another some Doritos. They were losing it, looking around frantically for ANYTHING that wasn’t bolted or welded down.
The boat next to them noticed and got into the act. One guy held up a catfish flipper, another pulled the live bait pump from his bucket and waved it. Another dug in his ice-chest and pulled out a trout.
“Already got all that,” Trish teased as the sweater inched downward again.
“NO WAIT!! WAIT!!” the first guy bellowed. “Here — HERE!”
And he reached over and grabbed his coat. He started poking in the pockets, and damned if he didn’t pull out a long pair of pearl beads!
“Knew it!” he yelled triumphantly. “I wore this coat to the parade last week! I KNEW I had me….!” And he flung them our way. Doc caught them as they rattled against the console, and Tricia smiled wickedly, while inching the sweater northward again.
The “WHOOPS!” and “YEAAAHS!” and “YOW-ZAs!” were still ringing in our ears as we entered Bay Gardene 30 minutes later. I’d tricked Doc into going outside, telling him a buddy had slaughtered the trout at the Black Tank recently.
“That’s summer fishing,” he retorted.
But I prevailed. He’d expended all his inside options. We had nothing to lose. Black Bay was nice. The wind had been just enough to keep the gnats off, but not enough to ruffle Black and American bays.
“Let’s try these first,” I tapped Doc on the shoulder while winking at Pelayo.
We were passing the first structures, just past Stone Island and The Wreck.
“AWWWW—MAN!” Doc said while poking in the bait well as we tied up. “Looks like all the shrimp died?”
“Maybe they don’t like Vodka,” Pelayo said, recalling when Tricia was refreshing the Bloody Marys with the gallon of Vodka and decided the shrimp needed a little “mellowing.” They’d been too frisky for her to grab, you see.
Apparently it worked. But you don’t need live shrimp for sheepshead this time of year. They’re spawning, ravenous and stacked up around EVERY shallow rig and wellhead from Black Bay down through Breton Sound, East Bay, West Bay, Sandy Point, Grand Isle blocks, Bay Marchand blocks (Fourchon rigs) to Ship Shoal. All you need is 10 to 12 foota-wawda. From here, they’ll be stacked up at practically ALL rigs going out to 40 to 50 foota-wawda.
Which is nice. Slip out of every channel from the MRGO to Ostrica locks, to Baptiste Collette, around to Red Pass and the Empire jetties, west to Caminada, Belle and Whiskey passes, and you’ll find such structures within easy reach for small boats — and all CRAMMED with ravenous sheepshead from January through late March. No reason to bash yourself silly or get skunked on the inside this time of year, my friends. There’s few sure things in fishing. This is one.
I broke an extremely “mellow” shrimp in half, and hooked the tail on a plain 1/8-ounce jighead (might use 1/4-ounce outta Sandy Point or Fourchon when the current’s kicking), and flipped it out near a barnacle-covered leg.
“Here ya go, Trish!” I handed her the pole and reached for mine when…..
“ONE HERE!” it was Zack, grunting and whooping from the bow, cranking away at his upside-down reel.
“Oooh!-oooooh!” Trish had just snapped the bail when she erupted. “AAEEEh!—Aeeeeh!” Got one! Got one!”
Her pretty face was aglow again, and her pole was bucking violently.
“That’s it, Trish!” Doc himself was getting into the spirit of things (probably thinking it was a trout).
Zack grabbed his leader and hoisted aboard a flopping sheepshead of maybe 3 pounds. He was ecstatic. Doc reached down and hoisted Tricia’s —another beaut’ of a sheepshead.
We nailed 37 of them in the next two hours, along with seven gorgeous puppy drum, ideal for the grill the next night. All on dead shrimp.
We had a BLAST!! Action was nonstop and ferocious. It’s like getting on a bed of bluegills — but 4- and 5-pound bluegill And it’s available all along our coast right now.
“Don’t worry, Doc,” I said as he looked into the ice chest worriedly. “I’ll clean ’em.”
If you insist on using a wussy electric knife, start from the tail and come up. The thickest rib bones are up by the head. Me, I like a boning knife, and carve out the thick, white, luscious fillets OVER the rib bones. I fillet them as fast as a redfish. It’s a labor of love.